For a few years in the 1980s and 1990s, the world was changing for the better and seemingly destined to keep doing so indefinitely. Back then, freedom resembled justice as described in the Bible — rolling down like waters. But in the last few years various governments have managed to dam it up, and in some cases, like the engineers who manipulated the Chicago River in 1900, even reverse the flow.
Between 1990 and 1997, the number of democracies in the world rose from 69 to 118, according to the human rights group Freedom House. In the past decade, though, the number has crept up by just five. Worse yet, in some places where democracy emerged back then, it has survived only in name.
This year, Russia noted the death of Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected ruler in its long history. The second, Vladimir Putin, sees no pressing need for a third. His party won a parliamentary election in which opposition activists were arrested and beaten and foreign election monitors were so restricted that they left long before the polls opened.
Meanwhile, Putin planned to get around the two-term limit on his power by installing a handpicked successor and becoming prime minister. "It’s not even a third term; it’s eternal," one former adviser told The Wall Street Journal.
Many of the former Soviet republics also proved inhospitable to rule by the people. One exception is Ukraine, which experienced an "orange revolution" in 2004 and held an election in September that The Economist magazine pronounced "a thoroughly democratic and unpredictable affair."
Unpredictability is not a condition favored by the rulers of China, where President Hu Jintao promised the expansion of "socialist democracy" in a country that is neither. Some 40 high school students in Tibet, some as young as 14, were arrested for allegedly writing pro-independence slogans on buildings.
In Myanmar, Buddhist monks in an anti-government demonstration carried a banner reading, "Love and kindness must win over everything." Maybe so, but not right away: The government killed at least 20 people in crushing the protests, according to Human Rights Watch, and arrested hundreds.
Cuban police detained dozens of young people for wearing white wristbands decorated with a single word: cambio, or change. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who takes Fidel Castro as his model, suffered two sound rebukes — one from King Juan Carlos of Spain, who said, "Why don’t you shut up?" and one from his people, who voted down measures designed to keep him in power permanently.
Authoritarian rule, the exception in South America, remains the norm in Africa. The Human Rights Forum in Harare reported that human rights violations in Zimbabwe nearly doubled in the first half of 2007. But at a summit meeting of leaders from Europe and Africa in Lisbon, African leaders united in refusing to criticize President Robert Mugabe — under whose rule average life expectancy has dropped from 62 years to 37.
Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor went on trial in The Hague for allegedly helping rebels who killed and maimed thousands of civilians during Sierra Leone’s civil war. He pleaded not guilty, but one of his former soldiers said, "If you start prosecuting war crimes, you’ll prosecute every Liberian."
Nigeria had its first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another, after an election with so much vote-rigging that the winner’s victory margin, according to The Washington Post, "surprised even supporters of the ruling party."
Iraq’s parliament took a month-long vacation in August even as U.S. troops were surging in an effort to provide lawmakers the security they needed to overcome their political stalemate. In Saudi Arabia, a young woman raped by seven men was sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes for her crime — being in a car with a male who was not her relative. King Abdullah, under international pressure, granted a pardon.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf forgot a lesson most people learn young: Don’t antagonize lawyers. His sacking of the country’s chief justice sparked protests by attorneys, eventually moving the president to impose a state of emergency. Musharraf allowed opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return from exile abroad, but when asked when he would step down, he replied, unencouragingly, "When there is no turmoil in Pakistan."
That was the political story in many places around the world in 2007 — enough turmoil to give authoritarian rulers an excuse to expand their control, but not enough to sweep them from power.